16 May 2010

The Faintly Odious Schoolteacher

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:14 pm

Following a line of thought introduced by Rancière, I was reminded of Theodor Adorno’s essay “Taboos on the Teaching Profession.” (I alluded to this essay in an earlier post about a bullying teacher.) Adorno considers the status differential between the “faintly odious” schoolteacher and the university professor who enjoys “the highest prestige.” First he notes the capitalist petit-bourgeois status distinction between the risk-taking independent professionals like lawyers and physicians vis-a-vis the bureaucratic functionaries, including schoolteachers, whose livelihood is assured. But universities are state bureaucracies too, with the tenure track offering lifetime security to the long-term university functionary — why isn’t the professor tainted with the schoolteacher’s odium?

For Adorno it’s a matter of power. Doctors and lawyers and administrators are delegated real power among fellow adults, whereas teachers wield power only over children, who aren’t accorded full legal autonomy and rights. As a consequence, the teacher’s “parody” of real power is resented by those over whom that power is exercised, meaning everyone who is or who ever was a schoolchild. But in what way is the university professor’s power more “real” than a schoolteacher’s? Is it just that university students are deemed legal adults, so they can escape if they like the power that the professor wields over them, the power that evaluates them and that may either grant or deny certain privileges accorded to those who get a university degree? I suppose so. Similarly, an adult worker can choose to quit a job that subjects him to the boss’ power, or to engage in some sort of dispute that subjects him to the lawyer’s and the judge’s power. I’m not persuaded of the difference: the power differential between worker and boss, disputant and judge, between college student and professor, is no more real, in the sense of being part of the natural order of things, than that between child and adult. It’s also no less coercive. The adult university student can quit school, but that decision forecloses career choices and imposes structural limits on economic gain. Are those consequences “real,” in the sense that the person without a college degree really is less qualified, or is the degree an artificial distinction imposed by social conventions? I think we’d all agree that, while the university is dedicated to learning, the degree itself is no more than a badge.

Adorno contends that the respected teachers, the successful teachers, the good teachers, are those who refuse to exert disciplinary power over the students. Instead, the good teachers subject themselves to the intellectual discipline of their academic specialties. “In other words,” says Adorno, “they are not bound to the pedagogical sphere, which is considered to be secondary and, as I said, suspect.” Bad teachers, by contrast, identify themselves professionally as teachers, as pedagogues.

“The problem of the immanent untruth of pedagogy lies probably in the fact that the pursuit is tailored to its recipients, that it is not purely objective work for the sake of the subject matter itself. Rather the subject matter is subsumed under pedagogical interests. For this reason alone the students are entitled unconsciously to feel deceived. Not only do the teachers recite for their students something already established, but also their function of mediator as such — which is like all circulatory activities in society already a priori a bit suspect — incurs some of the general aversion. Max Scheler once said that only because he never treated his students pedagogically did he have any pedagogical effect. I can only confirm this from my own experience. Success as an academic teacher apparently is due to the absence of any kind of calculated influence, to the renunciation of persuasion.”

So, the teacher who exerts power over the student practices a teacher-centered profession, while the pedagogue hopes to invert the power differential by being student-centered. Neither is effective, says Adorno. Instead, teaching should be knowledge-centered. The teacher or professor who actively pursues research in his field of scholarly expertise is in the best position to teach without getting caught up on one side or the other of a power differential with the students.

Still, there is a structural imbalance inherent in the student-teachers relationship. While students may consciously assert their equality with the teacher, Adorno warns that unconsciously the students tend to regard the teacher in parental terms, as an agent of the superego. The teacher who tries to be ultra-rational in his work is just falling into the counter-transference trap triggered by the students’ expectations, which often results in rigidity, tension, and awkwardness. Alternatively, the teacher might try to overcompensate by becoming “one of the gang” with the students, potentially veering toward anti-intellectualism. Instead, Adorno advises teachers to recognize the trap and to neutralize it by acknowledging their subjectivity.

“They should not repress their emotions only then to vent them in rationalized guise; instead they must acknowledge the emotions to themselves and others and thereby disarm their pupils. Most likely a teacher who says, ‘Yes, I am unjust; I am just as human as you are; some things please me, and some things don’t,’ is more convincing than one who strictly upholds the ideology of justice but then inevitably commits unavowed injustice. It goes without saying that from such reflections it follows directly that psychoanalytic training and self-reflection are necessary to the teaching profession.”

Adorno notes in passing that the pedestal of public esteem on which the university professor had traditionally stood is shrinking. Increasingly the professor is becoming “a peddler of knowledge, who is slightly pitied because he cannot better exploit that knowledge for his own material interests.” While Adorno believes that pulling the professors down from their lordly heights is a good thing, he regrets that the instrumental rationality of our times is reducing “spirit” to a commodity value.



  1. By and large I agree with Adorno here… Certainly the pedagogical aspect anyway. I like the idea of putting knowledge in the centre because, er, knowledge is for sharing, right? Not just for pedagogues.

    But surely the professor as “peddler of knowledge”, to be pitied for not earning a “real” living off his skills, is a consequence of the fact that, as you say, he had no more special power than the reviled teacher? He was once respected and/or tolerated for his scholarship. No more. There’s a saying in the UK that might also be common in the US: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. We’ve been dissing our professors for years!

    I wonder also if Adorno subjected himself to the same kind of self-reflection/psychoanalysis he recommends to teachers when composing the article. Or should be just take it for granted that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about? I guess we’ll come to our own conclusions either way.

    The power disjunction between teacher and the taught shouldn’t be exacebated or exaggeratedm but should it be ignored? University is about specialisation, after all. If you don’t like that idea, go out into the world and make a “real” living. Like writing articles about petit bourgeois pedagogues.


    Comment by NB — 21 May 2010 @ 7:15 am

  2. “and those who can’t teach, teach gym” — Jack Black in School of Rock. Now there was a master at work.

    I probably should move on from this topic of teaching, but I’ve got a few more unmasterly thoughts rattling around which I might need to vent. The larger context for me is a tentative exploration of anarchistic syndicalism, with schools serving synecdochally for the economy more broadly. If the high school graduate doesn’t go to university, he takes a job (or used to, when there were jobs to be had). The master-minion distinction still holds, but at least on the job the minion gets paid, whereas at the university the minion pays the master.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 May 2010 @ 9:00 am

  3. “The larger context for me is a tentative exploration of anarchistic syndicalism, with schools serving synecdochally for the economy more broadly.”

    Cool. May I suggest Colin Ward’s Anarchy in Action? I haven’t read it, so I feel eminently qualified in suggesting it…

    Apparently, it does show it’s age a bit in the examples, but the point’s clear enough.


    Comment by NB — 21 May 2010 @ 9:09 am

    • I’ve requested Ward’s book from the library, but apparently both copies are already checked out so I’ll have to wait.


      Comment by ktismatics — 21 May 2010 @ 11:51 am

  4. Sorry, one last thing about masters and teachers. I really liked this animation by Rene Laloux, which is based on a short story by Marguerite Yorcenar. It’s in two parts. Here’s the first:


    Comment by NB — 21 May 2010 @ 9:56 am

    • Beautiful, strange and moving. I’ve never read anything by Marguerite Yourcenar, but I see that she wrote what’s regarded as a great novel about Hadrian. Maybe she had a thing for emperors.


      Comment by ktismatics — 23 May 2010 @ 9:12 am

  5. Yes, this is pretty. Maybe a little heavy on the ‘interested in the images of things, not the things themselves’. Who, Plato? I thought those were supposed to be realer, but maybe they meant the kind that those judgmental sensible Athenians liked–you know, all that wonderful ‘superficials’ that Nietzsche thought (and rightly so) was such a gift in terms of ‘ancient life-style’ (could’t resist that bit of sleaze, even ‘Victorian life-style’ sounds hilarious). In fact, I’ve seen museum exhibitions of ancient Greek jewelry with gold pomegranates and other fruit and bird/animal exquisites in the necklaces, and it’s not hard to understand why they went on and lived it up. I still long to be at St. Paul’s gig in Athens almost more than at any other event in all of history–what did he say to them ‘your reception of me is NOT going to play in Peoria?’ (you live in NYC long enough, you get a bit Jewish..)

    Nice score in this one, too. In any case, aren’t the ‘images of things’ also ‘things’. I have decided that they are, and I don’t care if not’s true either, because I think Nietzsche’s love of the false was one of his cleverest formulations, and is very convenient if you’re in a compromising situation…


    Comment by Anonymous — 23 May 2010 @ 10:48 am

  6. “aren’t the ‘images of things’ also ‘things’. I have decided that they are, and I don’t care if not’s true either”

    Now of course we find ourselves back in the presence of the Master OOOntologists, and if I were more knowledgeable and adept I might explore an imaginary philosophical dialogue about the painterly image between Wang-Fo the idealist and Bryant the promiscuous realist, with Harman so captivated by the allure of the sensual eidos that, rather than losing himself in the painting, he swallows it. Maybe not.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 May 2010 @ 4:06 pm

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